News & Politics

The Man In The Red Hat

With a Controversial Catholic in the Presidential Race, the Cardinal Is Seen by Many as the Vatican's Man in Washington --and He May Play a Big Role in the Selection of the Next Pope

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick would never hint at a preference in the presidential race, but if John Kerry wins in November, he will be the first Catholic in the White House in four decades–and part of McCarrick's flock.

That the President would be a controversial Catholic doesn't faze McCarrick. In the nearly four years that he has headed the Archdiocese of Washington, McCarrick has become the nation's most interviewed and quoted cardinal. Whether Kerry becomes president or not, the battles within the Catholic Church are likely only to intensify. As one longtime observer says of McCarrick, "He's between the rock of Peter and a hard place."

If it's a hard place, it is also a high one. McCarrick is a significant force in the Church. He has been close to Pope John Paul II for many years and has served as his emissary on international issues. The Pontiff assigned him to the Washington Archdiocese four years ago to put him at the center of national and world politics. Because of his stature in the College of Cardinals, Vatican watchers believe McCarrick will be a dominant force in the election of the next pope.

McCarrick first met the Pope when he was still Cardinal Wojtyla, the archbishop of Kraków. The Polish cardinal had come to Philadelphia in 1976 for a Eucharistic Congress and was a guest of New York cardinal Terence Cooke's. One morning at breakfast McCarrick, then one of Cooke's secretaries, jokingly complained that he had given up his vacation so he could be at the conference.

Two years later, at the new Holy Father's first general audience at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II stopped McCarrick in the receiving line and asked, "Did you ever get that vacation?"

MCCARRICK, WHO HAS appeared on Meet the Press and been quoted extensively in the media, has angered some conservative Catholic groups who feel he is publicly too tolerant of politicians like Kerry. When some conservative church leaders said that Kerry, because of his pro-choice position, should not present himself at the altar rail for Communion, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ, McCarrick responded, "I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hand. There are apparently those who would welcome such a conflict, for good reasons I am sure, or for political ones, but I would not."

McCarrick says his position is in line with Catholic teachings: "The individual should be the one who decides whether he is in communion with the church, and if you are in communion with what the church teaches, then you have the right to receive Holy Communion."

A master of the nuanced response and a shrewd diplomat, McCarrick is hard to corner or define. People who know him say it is a mistake to pigeonhole McCarrick as a Catholic liberal. He is orthodox in his adherence to Roman Catholic dogma, which means he opposes abortion and supports such issues as an all-male priesthood and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.

A slight, vigorous 74-year-old, McCarrick is a thoughtful, energetic man with a self-effacing sense of humor. In his office suite in the Pastoral Center just across the Maryland line from Catholic University, he explains that his primary duties as Archbishop of Washington are pastoral and his political duties are secondary.

But he is clearly aware of his political role. Shortly after arriving here, he invited newly inaugurated President Bush and his wife, Laura, to dinner at the Pastoral Center. It was an invitation they couldn't refuse, knowing that they have strong support among upscale, church-attending Catholics.

Also aware of the cardinal's influence, presidential candidate Kerry sought a meeting recently with McCarrick. They talked in the small sitting room the cardinal likes to use for intimate meetings.

McCarrick argues that there is no such thing as a Catholic vote–or that it is more divided now than it was when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960. He says the Catholic vote is probably more conservative now "because of what I think a lot of us feel are attacks against a culture that we feel is important to us–the culture of our family, the culture of marriage, the culture of life, the culture of honesty."

IN THE HIERARCHY OF ROMAN Catholicism, cardinals are the princes of the Church; at one time they carried diplomatic status equal to princes. Men of power and influence, they are addressed as "your eminence." They advise the Pope and serve on the various congregations, or internal governing bodies, that establish the rules controlling the world's largest denomination. With 64 million members, it is the largest in the United States; second is the Southern Baptist Convention, with more than 16 million members.

The church has 189 cardinals, including McCarrick's predecessor, Cardinal James A. Hickey, who is in a nursing home here under the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Next July, when McCarrick reaches 75, under canon law he must submit his resignation, then continue to serve at the pleasure of the Pontiff. On his 80th birthday, he loses the right to vote in the College of Cardinals, who meet in secret conclave at the death of the Pope to select a new leader. Currently 122 cardinals are eligible to elect a new pope.

Because Pope John Paul II is in failing health and under an unofficial death watch, McCarrick is likely to be a part of the next conclave sealed in the Sistine Chapel to select a new successor to St. Peter. And his role there may be more significant than most Americans realize.

David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church and a religion reporter who has covered the Vatican and knew McCarrick for the 18 years he was Archbishop of Newark, describes him as a "pope maker." Over the years, Gibson says, McCarrick "has been the Pope's point man on international issues, developing a number of international political contacts, including important ones in the church hierarchy."

McCarrick's travels for the Vatican have taken him through Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America. Most of the cardinals haven't traveled as much and don't know many of the other cardinals. They will look to McCarrick to help bring them together behind a candidate. "He will have an important say on who the new pope will be," Gibson says.

Much of McCarrick's work for the Vatican has taken place behind the scenes, but not all of it. Shortly after being elevated to cardinal, he was in Rome with other American cardinals discussing the sex-abuse crisis that was roiling the Church. It was McCarrick who emerged from the meetings to face the media in St. Peter's Square. McCarrick says that he got the job because the other cardinals "can run faster than I do." Actually, he was asked to talk because of his experience, ease, and rapport with the media. Some reporters who covered him in Rome became such fans that they were known as "Team Ted."

BORN IN 1930, McCarrick was raised in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, the son of a sea captain from Norfolk and a beautiful mother who'd worked as an artist model. His father, who contracted the Spanish flu in the Navy during World War I and had weakened lungs, was later stricken with tuberculosis and died when McCarrick was three years old.

He doesn't reminisce much about being an only child in a one-parent household except to say that he identified more with the Church of the Incarnation parish than with his neighborhood. He says he wasn't lonely. "If you are an only child, you develop a lot of family," he says. "Your cousins become your brothers and sisters."

This summer the cardinal attended the annual gathering in New Jersey of all those cousins and their offspring; the event is affectionately called Uncle's Day. About 80 family members were on hand, he says.

In his cluttered office, McCarrick points out a bookcase filled with family photos, plus a few of him with famous people. Gesturing toward a photo of him with Fidel Castro, he says, "He's not family."

McCarrick brightens when he speaks of his mother, who went to work in an auto-parts factory and relied on her mother and other relatives to help take care of her son after her husband's death. "We were very poor," he remembers. He tells a story about how, when he was a "dumb little kid," his mother worked in a factory in the Bronx. "If she got overtime, I'd get a nickel," he recalls. "I didn't know what overtime was. I thought that on Friday as she was leaving he boss would say, 'Here, you've got overtime.' "

When he met her at the trolley coming home from work he would ask, "Did you get overtime?" If she had, he would get the nickel. It was always for a toy, not for candy. "Candy you lose," he explains. "Toys you keep. You've got to have something to hold onto. When you are poor, you buy something you'll have for a while."

When President and Laura Bush came to the Pastoral Center for dinner, McCarrick showed them a portrait of his mother–a large pastel drawing of a young woman with delicate features and long red hair flowing almost to her waist. (The portrait now hangs in his Kalorama apartment.)

"The President said she was beautiful," McCarrick says, gazing up at the portrait. "I said, 'Mom, wherever you are, you'll know that on this day the President of the United States personally admired your painting.' Now I'm sure that in heaven somewhere Mom must have enjoyed that very much."

AT A CONFERENCE of the Anti-Defamation League of this region, McCarrick speaks of growing up in New York. Sitting in a circle of about 50 people in one end of the ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel, he says he grew up in a neighborhood that was largely Irish Catholic, about 40 percent Jewish, with a few Italians. He gets a laugh when he says he thought the whole world was that way–that it wasn't until he was in college that he began to meet Protestants.

Except for the ring Pope John Paul II gave him and the chain of his pectoral cross, usually tucked out of view under his jacket, there is no outward symbol that he is a cardinal. He wears the colors and the red cap of the cardinal only on special occasions and at some services.

"To be a good Catholic," he tells the group, "you have to love everybody. . . . We are all children of Abraham." The ADL members gave him a standing ovation and crowded in to have pictures taken with him.

ADL regional director David Friedman says McCarrick is committed to working with the Jewish community. "He's much more an internationalist than Hickey, who didn't travel much, and very outgoing. The first time I met him he slapped me on the back and said, 'Hi, Dave.' As two New Yorkers, we related well."

AS A TEENAGER, McCarrick had problems that didn't suggest he had a promising future. He was thrown out of Xavier High School in his junior year. "I think I felt the obligation of going daily to school was too strict an obligation. . . . They said, 'You've had it, you're out more days than we'd like you to be.' " McCarrick has little more to say about why he didn't go to classes, and his communications director, Susan Gibbs, says she has always wondered why he was expelled.

A friend of the family helped get him into another Catholic school, Fordham Prep, after he lost an academic year. Something in his attitude changed, and he excelled at Fordham. "I guess I realized how unhappy I had made my mother and my family," he says. He was elected student-council president and was even an outstanding student in Air Force ROTC.

After graduation McCarrick spent a year with a friend in Switzerland, where he began working on his language skills. He is fluent in Spanish, German, French, and Italian. At a religious retreat in a monastery in the Alps on his 20th birthday, he made the decision to become a priest.

He entered St. Joseph's Seminary in New York and was ordained in 1958 by Cardinal Francis Spellman. That year he became an assistant chaplain at Catholic University here, where he later served as dean of students and director of development and earned a doctorate in sociology. Seven years later he became president of Catholic University in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and then monsignor.

In 1969 Cardinal Terence Cooke brought him back to New York to be assistant secretary of education for the archdiocese. Two years later, Cooke made him his priest secretary, a position McCarrick held until 1977, when he was named auxiliary bishop of New York. Four years later, Pope John Paul II named him the first bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey, and five years later archbishop of Newark, where he remained until he was named archbishop and sent to head the archdiocese of Washington.

AS ARCHBISHOP HERE, McCarrick is responsible for the 560,000 Catholics in the Washington archdiocese, which includes 140 parishes in DC and in Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, Calvert, and St. Mary's counties in Maryland. Nearly 200,000 of those Catholics are Hispanic, the fastest growing segment. More than 100,000 are African-American, Caribbean, or African.

Washington is much smaller than the 1.3-million member Newark archdiocese that McCarrick led before coming here in 2000. Historically, Baltimore has been the major regional archdiocese, the mother of the Catholic church in the United States. Washington became a separate archdiocese in 1939 because of its national role. For that reason, Maryland is the only state with two cardinals. Virginia has two dioceses–Richmond and Arlington–headed by bishops.

McCarrick makes clear that even though Washington is the nation's capital, his first responsibility is taking care of his Catholic flock. His second is to take care of the poor, Catholic and non-Catholic; third, to see that there are enough priests and nuns; and fourth, to make sure there is the money to do what is necessary.

As a former educator, he has tried to make his influence felt in the DC school system. After arriving here, he spoke to DC's superintendent of schools: "I said, 'You want somebody to fight for public school education? He's sitting right here.' I will always fight for public-school education for a number of reasons. One of them is selfish–most of my kids are in public schools, and I want those schools to be good."

McCarrick is a strong advocate of the school-voucher program, which he calls a "scholarship" program. He notes the heavy tuition costs of attending Catholic schools and says if the state gives the money to families who then make the choice–public, Catholic, or whatever–it resolves the "separation of church and state" issue.

There are 33,500 students in Catholic schools in the archdiocese; 44 percent are nonwhite and 25 percent non-Catholic. An archdiocesan report says that nearly all graduates of Catholic high schools go to college. (Highly regarded high schools such as Gonzaga, Georgetown Prep, and St. John's are run by religious orders, not by the archdiocese.)

Last among his priorities, McCarrick says, is being the church's chief representative in the nation's capital, which is also the headquarters of the country's ruling Catholic authority, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, located near the Catholic University campus.

"When the bishops ask you to do something," he says, "to do it with the government, you make sure you're on good terms with the government–with whoever's in power."

AS A BOY, MCCARRICK SAYS, he once plotted on a world map all the places he would go. He couldn't have known then how much of that world he would one day see representing the Catholic Church.

McCarrick says he has been the Vatican's point man on a number of international issues simply because of his facility with languages, which he attributes to being a good mimic. But it is also an outgrowth of his years with Cardinal Cooke, with whom he traveled to Vietnam in 1971. McCarrick was one of the first Westerners in Rwanda after the genocide there in 1984, and he almost became a hostage in Bosnia during the conflict there.

"When the Iron Curtain fell," he recalls, "the bishops in the United States said so many of our people have come from Eastern Europe we have to help them, and I became the chair for about seven years of that group and went to help people in Eastern Europe. So today, if there's a problem there they say, 'Send McCarrick over. We know him.' "

The international issues that concern him the most, McCarrick says, revolve around the Holy Land. "I would hate to be an Israeli citizen and not know when my brother or myself was going to be blown up. And I would hate to be a Palestinian knowing that if some nutty Palestinian did something, the Israeli army's going to come in and bomb my home. This is the place where Jesus was born and raised–the Prince of Peace."

He says world attitudes about the United States have changed. "Twenty years ago people would say, 'Oh, you're American. We're friends of the United States. What a wonderful country.' Nowdays you say you are from the United States and they say, 'Why are you killing Arabs like this? Why are you in Iraq? Is it just for oil?' "

McCarrick says that some of that is the result of jealousy, but he knows that the war in Iraq and the ever-growing antipathy toward Americans in the Middle East are issues he will have to confront. His predecessor, Cardinal Hickey, avoided the political arena and left national and international issues to the Papal Nuncio, essentially the Pope's ambassador here, and the Catholic Conference. Not McCarrick. He enjoys being in the thick of it.

BUT MCCARRICK ALSO MAKES his presence known in the archdiocese. He tries to say Mass every morning in one of the archdiocese's 140 parishes, and three on Sundays. His schedule is published in the archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Standard.

Writer David Gibson says McCarrick lives for the Church and is a spiritual man who "can go from diplomat to a monk in the blink of an eye." No matter what the political demands are, McCarrick will be out in the parishes.

Instead of residing in the Pastoral Center–where an apartment was available to him but which has all the charm of a Best Western hotel–McCarrick lives on the edge of Kalorama near Adams Morgan. He wanted a more urban environment, he says, and "being cheap," he found that a former high school and orphanage on California Street, now Our Lady, Queen of the Americas Church parish building, had a fourth floor that was being used for storage. Cleaned out, it made a nice apartment.

The red-brick, four-story building has a daycare center on the first floor, parish offices and the church on the second and third. The top floor has been configured with four bedrooms, a chapel, an office, kitchen, living room, and dining room. McCarrick shares the apartment with auxiliary bishop Kevin Farrell and two priest secretaries.

The baronial splendor once associated with bishops and cardinals has become a thing of the past. When the imperious Cardinal Bernard Law resigned from the Boston archdiocese for mishandling sexual-abuse cases, his replacement, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, a Franciscan who once was director of the Spanish Catholic Center here, put the archdiocesan mansion up for sale.

MCCARRICK LOVES TO JOKE about his parsimony. "I'm cheap," he says. "I haven't bought a new suit in 20 years." Several years ago, he says, he received some 80 black suits free from the Hertz company when it discontinued its uniformed chauffeur division. He gave most of the suits to seminarians and kept three for himself. "They're black, they're sturdy and still in good shape," he says.

McCarrick isn't seen much at the Kennedy Center, social events, or restaurants. He eats out only when fundraising. He doesn't watch much television or go to the movies. He did see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and describes it as a "good spiritual script." He says his escape is prayer.

He reads Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, and Robert Ludlum novels and David Morrell thrillers; he likes the music of Willie Nelson, John Denver, and Kenny Rogers. One afternoon before a recent interview, he was sitting on the floor of his office listening to Kenny Rogers while organizing paperwork.

When he gets a day off, McCarrick heads for a marina on St. Patrick's Creek in southern Maryland, where he keeps a 20-foot fishing boat that was given to him. He usually invites a few priests along, and they fish for striped bass, croakers, and flounder.

For the past 20 years he has vacationed for a week every year on the New Jersey shore, where a friend loans him a house. He usually takes along a group of priests and seminarians. The only requirement for guests is that someone be able to cook.

ON A RECENT SUNDAY, McCarrick is at a special Mass at newly restored St. Matthew's Cathedral, the site of John F. Kennedy's funeral. The Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is also in attendance, as are nine bishops. They make for a colorful assembly at the main altar. McCarrick wears the red skullcap and red short cape of his office as he presides.

Taking up a pew in the congregation is a group of anti-abortion-rights activists wearing bright red T-shirts emblazoned YOU CAN'T BE A CATHOLIC & BE PRO-ABORTION. They are attending the Mass in silent protest but want a meeting later with McCarrick. Communications director Susan Gibbs refuses, saying the cardinal knows their position and has other appointments.

The group is part of the American Life League, which has been buying full-page ads in the Washington Times calling on priests to deny Holy Communion to pro-choice politicians. One ad accused McCarrick of not protecting Christ in the Eucharist from "this sacrilege."

It is an issue that won't go away, especially if Kerry is elected president. Which is why, McCarrick points out, Kerry faces a much different world than Kennedy faced in 1960, when stem-cell research, abortion, and gay marriage were not issues.

If Bush is reelected, some of the heat will be off McCarrick. Bush opposes abortion rights and gay marriage and supports limited stem-cell research. And he is not a Catholic.

As for what some see as religious posturing during the presidential campaign, McCarrick says he believes that both Bush and Kerry are religious men: "Even though we live in a secular society, it doesn't mean we can't accept religion as an important factor in the life of our country."

McCarrick is careful with his wording. "Let me say this, and forgive me that I keep giving you answers that are basically nuanced, but it seems to me that religion has a role in the political process inasmuch as we all come to our decisions on the values that we hold, and those of us who hold religious values, obviously that comes into our persona and into what we believe and what we vote for."

Despite his international influence, McCarrick insists that all he ever wanted to be was a parish priest, a notion that Catholic writer Gibson laughs at.

"They all say that," he says. "McCarrick as a parish priest would have been like trying to keep a tiger in a birdcage."

In the red cap emblematic of his office, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, admires the newly restored St. Matthew's Cathedral.